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Commander in Comedy

March 27, 2004

Presidents have always used self-deprecation to deflect criticism. Ronald Reagan, who loved one-liners, inoculated himself from charges that he was taking too many workday naps by observing, "Hard work never killed anyone -- but I figure, why take the chance?" Without occasional jokes, especially at their own expense, presidents would look like sourpuss bluestockings. Calvin Coolidge, anyone?

Too bad Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats are acting like laughs should be banned from serious politics. McAuliffe and others denounced President Bush as disrespectful for putting on a slide show at the Radio and Television News Correspondents Assn. dinner showing him peering about the White House for weapons of mass destruction. "This is a very serious issue," McAuliffe said Friday. Well, yes. But does that mean telling a joke about it is "cavalier," as presumptive Democratic candidate John F. Kerry put it?

Of course the weapons controversy has serious implications, as do most subjects of jokes at such events. Democrats saying that Bush can't joke about it without insulting soldiers is like the GOP claiming that Democrats can't oppose the war and be patriotic.

The truly serious thing about what's known as Washington's "Silly Season" is whether presidents rise to the challenge. Whether it's the Alfalfa Club, the Gridiron or a correspondents dinner, the pressure is intense. If they can't pass muster at these overgrown frat parties, how can they be expected to deal with world leaders?

Franklin Roosevelt proved his bona fides right away at the 1934 Gridiron. After being denounced by a guest speaker, the journalist H.L. Mencken, Roosevelt solemnly delivered a denunciation of the assembled press corps -- one that had been written by Mencken himself years earlier. Mencken shook Roosevelt's hand and said "fair shooting." In 2000, McAuliffe's old boss, Bill Clinton, aired a video of himself at the White House Correspondents dinner that had Clinton wandering around the White House asking "Anybody home?," creating origami ducks and running after Hillary, shouting "You forgot your lunch!" At this year's Gridiron, skits made fun of Halliburton and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

For all the mockery, these Comedy Centrals for the political class usually end on a serious note, and at the broadcasters' dinner, Bush solemnly saluted U.S. soldiers fighting abroad. If Democrats want to attack Bush, there's a gold mine in his policies. But oh, please, don't demand a president who can't laugh.

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